[This post was written about 12 hours after the game, while the emotions were fresh. The details may not all be factual, but this is a true account of my experience.]
I have to post this because it was too awesome not to share.
On Friday night, I was in attendance of the greatest hockey game that has ever been played in Houston.
My dad and I went to the Toyota Center, parked, and walked into the arena. The “Sonic Boom” dancers (yes, our team has spandex-clad dancers) were at the doors, handing out “rally towels” to the first however-many-thousand fans. It was Fan Appreciation night, apparently. As we proceeded inside, I joked to my dad, in my best ‘nerd voice,’ “That girl talked to me! Heehee!” My dad laughed, shaking his head. We make it to our seats. Section 113, Row 15, Seats 1 and 2, the section to the right side of the goal, in the Aeros’ attack zone. For you non-hockey people who are actually reading all of this, that’s the end of the rink that the home team will be attacking during the first and last period of the game.
Great seats, in other words. No corner-ice seats, but great nevertheless.
The anticipation builds. While one of our best scorers has been called up to our parent NHL franchise, we are excited to see the return of our amazing goaltender from the big league. Josh Harding. Good to see you back, dude.
Pre-game: We announce that Murphy is the Aeros' "Man of the Year," due in part to his commitment to charity work. We recognize three first-team all-stars (Westrum, Murphy, and Kirby Law). And we cheer for Patrick O’Sullivan, newly named AHL Rookie of the Year. See this, Omaha? That’s why we own you.
The game begins. The Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights score on their first shot on goal. Josh, maybe I’ll take back that previous sentiment for the time being.
The Aeros (from this point on, also known as “the good guys”) are playing sloppy. Embarrassing, really. Omaha is being a lot more aggressive, and we’re getting all turned around by that. We have guys losing sight of the puck as it dribbles between their skates. We have guys getting smacked around all over the place. On offense, we pass-pass-pass-pass and never take open shots, until finally we turnover the puck. We’re flat out getting out-played.
The first period ends, and we’re lucky to only be down 1-0.
First period intermission: a martial arts display, involving students from 8 or 9 to 20 or 25. Set to music. Two guys with bo staffs (“they’ve got skills!”) “duel” to the tune of “The Devil Came Down to Georgia,” including acting out the two parts. And that was actually a lot cooler than it sounded. Kids demonstrated all sorts of weapons and flying kicks. It was actually kind of cool.
Second Period: Finally we start to get something going, and score a goal to tie. 1-1. Rock on. Then, in the first of several “Keystone Cops” moments, while we’re on the power play (for you non-fans, that means one of their five guys is in the penalty box, so we have five players to their four for the next two minutes), they dump the puck into the Aeros’ zone. Two of our guys go back to play it, one on each side of the goal. When the come out right in front of the goal, they skate smack into each other and fall down. One of the Knights was right there and scooped it up, flipping it in for a short-handed goal past Harding. The Knights take a 2-1 lead.
Collective groans from the crowd.
Then, after they get all their guys back, and we lose a man for two minutes, something awesome happens. Joel Ward, aggressive on the forecheck, pokes the puck away from their point player, and suddenly it’s a mad dash. Joel Ward, in all alone, skating straight at the Omaha goaltender. Ward shoots. The goalie goes into full splits. Chest save. Rebound. Ward is about to collide with the goalie when he slides the rebound right between the netminder's legs. The puck squirts into the net as Ward gets knocked over by the goalie. Short-handed goal, TIE GAME! 2-2.
Then, the unthinkable. The Aeros make two stupid penalties and are outmanned 5-3 on the ice. The Knights capitalize with 2 “power-play” goals, and we go into the second intermission, down 4-2. My dad looks at me. Here we go again. The last time he and I came to an Aeros game, they got completely schooled by (who else) Omaha. And from the looks of things, it could be more of the same.
Second period intermission: If you’ve never seen the charity fundraiser/game “Chuck-a-Puck,” well, I’m sure your life is just as fulfilling. But it is something else. The fans who wish to participate pay 2 bucks per puck before the game, and receive an orange puck with a number on it. Then, at the proper time during the second intermission, the fans “chuck” their pucks onto the ice, aimed at a single upside-down hockey helmet. If a puck lands and stays in the helmet, that person wins $500.
Giving fans hundreds of hockey pucks is not always the best idea sometimes. One, some folks can’t figure out that if you’re in the very back of your section, or your sitting in the sections behind the goal with the 100-foot-tall netting, and you don’t have a strong arm, you will endanger the people in front of you. I’ve seen that happen. It ain’t pretty. Two, if the referees make a particularly egregious call in the periods beforehand, you could see angry fans chucking their pucks at the officials during the game. I’ve seen that happen, too. Twice. Funny, but still not pretty.
But during the actual chuck-a-puck game, it’s okay. Everyone is cleared off the ice, and as long as the puck doesn’t bounce in and then out of the rink, it’s all good.
I’ve never seen a puck actually make it and stay in the helmet.
Last night, two went in. And we all knew there was something special going on.
Third period: Faced with a 4-2 deficit against a red-hot Omaha team, there wasn’t much room for improvement. However, during the first half of the third and final frame, nothing much happened. In fact, the only thing that did happen was that “Sonic Boom” came down to our section and started handing out coupons for free buffalo wings from a local restaurant. Being on the end of the row, I received the stack of coupons (and a smile) from the dancer. I passed the stack to my dad. “That’s two, man.” He laughed. “It’s a good day for you, isn’t it?” “Heck yes.”
Ten minutes left in the game. It was time. I turned my Aeros ballcap inside out, rally-cap style. My dad shook his head at me. Then, a few minutes later, A GOAL! Four minutes after that, ANOTHER GOAL BY WARD! I’m jumping up and down, screaming at the top of my lungs. I nearly blacked out. I had to sit down.
The Aeros suddenly came to life. Hitting, passing, rebounding, they were playing like they had all season. I turned back to my dad. “It’s the rally cap!” He nodded. “Must be!”
4-4 tie, two minutes left, and the two teams play to a deadlock. That’s right, folks, we’re going to OVERTIME. Overtimes in this league are played as a 5:00 period of 4-on-4, instead of 5-on-5. This opens up the ice a bit, gives players more room to maneuver.
Lots of great scoring chances. Lots of amazing saves by Josh Harding. (By the way, I’m again glad to see you back, Josh.) And the horn sounds. Overtime ends. It’s time for the SHOOT-OUT.
If you don’t know what a shoot-out is, go watch a Mighty Ducks movie. Suffice to say, the most exciting thing in hockey.
The first two rounds: We couldn’t get our shots off, and Harding made one great save, and let another in. Omaha, 1-0.
Round Three: Harding makes the big stop, and then Voloshenko finds the top of the net, knocking the goalie’s water bottle off and into the corner. 1-1 tie!
Round Four: No scores.
Round Five: No scores.
Every time Omaha goes to shoot at the opposite end, we’re rooted in our seats, not moving, not blinking. Every time the Aeros come to shoot in our end, we’re all on our feet. Every miss by Omaha elicits a rousing cheer. Every miss by the Aeros brings a groan and gasp.
Rounds Six and Seven: The goalies are looking incredible. No scores. Still tied 1-1.
Round Eight: Harding makes a HUGE stop against the Omaha skater.
Volshenko comes up to shoot, having scored the last shoot-out point. If he misses, we go on. If he scores, we go home happy.
Volshenko skates in, dekes. The Omaha goalie drops low. Volshenko lofts the puck, top-shelf, glove side.
HE SCORES! AEROS WIN 5-4 IN THE SHOOTOUT!!!!
I’ve got no voice. I’ve got no breath. Dad and I exit amid the pandemonium, to get to the car in time. We are quickly out and on our way home.
Greatest. Game. Ever.